It turns out that my typical middle American suburban cul de sac isn’t so typical after all. You see, the kids on my street play.
We had the snowiest winter on record, but that didn’t stop them from heading outside after school to engage in snowball fights or the more genteel snow angel creation and snow fort engineering.
Now that spring has sprung, gangly gangs of girls and boys bike up and down the street. They play on the swing-set in one family’s backyard. They decorate the street with sidewalk chalk. They play hopscotch and jump rope. They tromp around the brushy woods behind our houses, mapping out conquests against imaginary forces.
One of them got a kite stuck in a tree.
It’s nice. It’s quaint. It’s what I did as a kid. It’s probably some version of what you did as a kid.
But, apparently, the unstructured, child-directed play that these kids engage in so happily is becoming increasingly rare in our culture.
My kids are still so young that I have yet to experience the all-out activity assault that I know is waiting around the bend. Little League. Peewee soccer. Suzuki violin. Swimming lessons. Movement class. Music class. Art class. Boy Scouts. Not to mention the lures of the Wii, Facebook, and texting.
And maybe my town – or at least my street – is somewhat immune to the trend of structured activities and time spent in front of computer screens replacing free play in the lives of our kids. But we’d be the exception. According to Christine Carter in Raising Happiness, our kids have lost eight hours a week of unstructured play time over the past 20 years.
And that is a big problem. In addition to the obvious and immediate benefits of play – like, say, it’s fun and it helps them “blow off steam and get a little physical exercise” – the far-reaching benefits of free play are tremendous:
- play fosters creativity and imagination
- free play helps kids learn to self-regulate their behavior
- child-led play helps kids learn how to get along with others and improves their social skills
- play enhances kids’ ability to be empathetic
- kids who engage in free play tend to have higher emotional intelligence
- the improved social skills and emotional intelligence that come from play correlate to better performance in school
And play comes naturally to kids. The decrease in the time that they spend doing it isn’t their fault. It’s ours.
For all of our talk about mindfulness and being present, we adults not only seem to have forgotten how to live in the moment in our own lives, but we’re planning our kids’ childhoods right out from under them.
So what do we do? The good news is that the answer is both free and easy!
Some tips from Christine Carter:
- beware of sacrificing free play to academic preschools and structured sports
- don’t correct your kids when they are playing
- make sure your kids have plenty of time each day for pretend play
- “Don’t play with your kids in ways that bore you”
- encourage the use of “symbolic props” rather than “prefab toys”
Free and easy, that is, if you’re willing to be part of the vanguard reclaiming the lost art of play for our kids.
What is you favorite way to play? Have you seen evidence of the loss of unstructured play time in your own life?